In a January 2015 New York Times Review of Books essay, critic and magazine editor Leon Wieseltier warned against a post-humanist — after the human — culture in which technological devices and data replace human beings and thought. “Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything,” he writes. “It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data- generating capabilities of the new technology.”
In short, “Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.” One might assume that Wieseltier does not have a copy of Data-ism, a new book from New York Times technology journalist Steve Lohr, on his bedside table. At first glance, Data-ism seems to be the embodiment of Wieseltier’s fear that quantification has replaced wisdom. The “ism” title seems to promise an introduction (manifesto?) to the philosophy of quantification. The subtitle is not timid: “The revolution transforming decision making, consumer behavior and almost everything else.” And within its pages, Lohr does a masterful job of describing all of the possibilities of “big data.”
Data-ism is perhaps one of the most balanced, levelheaded examinations of the potential of big data. Lohr never hesitates to give voice to the critics or skeptics of a data-driven world, nor fails to point out the limitations of artificial intelligence. It is this balance and restraint, however, that makes Lohr and his book the most persuasive champions of the massive and generally positive changes that “the virtuous cycle of more and more varied data and smarter and smarter algorithms, written by human programmers” will make in our lives. In short, quantification will not replace wisdom, as Wieseltier fears; but, Lohr shows, it will augment our wisdom — working with our amazing human brains — to help us make better decisions, free our time and energy to focus on the tasks where we can make the most difference, and, ultimately, make the world a much better place.